By Jeff Campbell
I thought that I was on a sort-of sabbatical. Or at least a rest stop, along the way. For over ten years, Ive been on this journey. Its a journey that I began before I was a Christian In fact, it was partially through the journey that I was drawn to Him in the first place.
Through a series of surprises, disasters, and unplanned circumstances I ended up a Special Education Teacher. That was never part of my plan for my life. Its just what happened, and I thank God every day for it. (O.K., actually thats probably not true. I try to thank God everyday for it; I should thank God every day for it.)
Over a period of close to a decade I have worked in the poorest, biggest, inner city schools in Massachusetts and in residential schools for troubled kids in Los Angeles and on the East Coast. I have had students who have done drive-bys and been third generation gang members. Ive tried to teach kids whove been prostituted by their parents for drugs. Ive worked with kids who have sexually abused hundreds of other kids. I have worked with kids who have been abused hundreds of times.
There was this boy who had scars on his arms. When the voices told him to light himself on fire he did. There was this girl, over 6 feet tall, probably 225 pounds. Chronologically she was 17 years old, but on the inside she was so much younger. She was 11 when she found her parents dead, in bed, a suicide-murder. She hadnt grown emotionally a day since.
Its hard to get beyond the cliches in this situation. I learned so much from these kids. It was such a privilige and a joy to work with them. Those things are true. But maybe I get beyond the cliches by telling the whole story. Because those sentences are not false but they are only half the story.
The full story is this: There were days I was sure I could not do it. There were days that it didnt feel worth it. There were many days that I came close to hating the students, and a few days when I actually did hate them.
Two years ago I sprained my back breaking up a fight between my students. I spent a month on disabality. I was warned, quite off the record, to watch myself. The school district had a history of wanting to sever ties with teachers who could prove to be legal problems down the road. Unsurprisingly, my contract wasnt renewed the next year.
I spent last school year at a middle school that was on the verge of being taken over by the state. To say that it was a tough situation would be to understate the case significantly. Student, teacher, parent morale was abysmal.
After ten years, of these sorts of schools, my current position fell into my lap. An affluent, mostly suburban (with a bit of rural thrown in) smallish school district was looking to begin a class for behaviorally challenged students.
Sometimes, I feel like Im at a country club. And it was easy to view this as a bit of a sabbatical. I was desperate for a moment to catch my breath. It didnt feel like what Im really called to do.
Its strange to have close to enough supplies, technology, and support to actually impact these kids. Occasionally, I have these perverse flashes of guilt that Im not working in an absurdly hopeless situation.
Mostly, though, it was easy to see my new position as bordering on the trivial, to see the severity of these kids issues as comparatively lightweight. Like lots of realizations that come easy, this was also dangerous.
There was this Freshman girl. Lets call her Lori. Lori is a tough kid, as kids within this particular district go. Like many kids shes received absurdly inconsistent expectations, parenting, and boundaries. Shes learned to push, test, and manipulate. She has this great smile and a big heart, but its easy to lose sight of this when shes cursing and yelling.
One of the keys to my job is deciding what Im going to fight over and what Im not going to. Giving up on the areas Ive decided to dig my heels in can create some problems for both me and the kids. I do my best not to. An area I decided I wasnt going to compromise with Lorie was around the issues of wearing shoes in my class.
Every day she would come and want to take them off. I figured this to be a power game with her. There was a wide variety of areas I gave in on with her (and my other students.) There are some areas where I dont. This was one. Every day wed lock horns. Every day I would instruct her that shoes needed to be worn in my class. Every day Id level consequences when she didnt meet my expectations.
I was proud of myself when the day finally came that she gave up on taking off her shoes. I had known it would come. These kids are used to wearing down the adults in there lives. They can be outlasted, but its not easy. I put a tally mark on the mental chalk score board in my head under my own name: Score one for me.
The days and weeks went by. I made some progress with some kids, I didnt make as much with other kids. I worked at building relationships while I taught them, I worked at caring for them as I worked with them, I tried to be there for them as I held them accountable. The great thing about being a Special Educator is that I get to see many of my kids for significant portions of the day. These are kids who often have no meaningful relationships, especially with adults.
With Lori Not so much. There was this wall. I figured I could wait this out, too. I felt confident in my assessment, proud of my abilities; Id seen it all before, in kids twice as tough, twice as desperate. I hope youll share my surprise when I tell you that a co-worker approached at some point in the middle of all this. Shed sent Lori to the nurse. Lori, it seemed, had these tremendous blisters. Shed been cramming her feet into shoes two sizes too small. Shed been wearing to them to school every day. Shed been wearing them home, every day. Shed been wanting to take them off in my class, every day.
And I was so proud of myself when I won that battle with her. I was so proud of myself when she gave up trying to take them off. No wonder she was never focused on what was going on in class. I wouldnt either, if you crammed my size 11 feet into size 9s. (And who knows what other ways shes been and continues to be neglected its quite likely that her shoes are pretty low on the list of troubling issues in her life.)
The Bible says: Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself. (Philippians 2:5-7)
More times than I can count, Jesus humbles himself. In more ways than I can count, Jesus humbles himself. I am confident that if he were a teacher, he would not use his authority as a teacher simply to demonstrate his dominance. I cant say Im sure what he would do. I guess thats what a life of faith is all about. Figuring out how to incarnate Jesus into the details of our lives.
There are these lessons that we learn over and over again. One for me is that God can be trusted. Another for me is that there is work to do wherever I am. A third is that the teacher-student relationship is not a simple, one sided deal. There are ways in which the students teach me more than I teach them.
Kids like Lori and many of my other students, these are the least among us. The way we treat them is the way we treat Jesus. Some days, Ive done right by Jesus. But there was a day, that Jesus came into my class with shoes that didnt fit. I wielded my power and my authority, and I forced his shoes back on.
Jeff Campbell is attempting to follow Jesus’ revolutionary call on his life as a father of three, a husband, Special Education Teacher, and Director of Small Groups at Fellowship Church in Holden, Massachusetts. He frequently tells his kids–much to their great annoyance– that he’d like to be a fireman when he grows up.